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Rev. Jackson tells Black firemen to “fight back” for job equity

Reverend Jesse Jackson urged Black firemen to fight for their share of city jobs, and especially for adherence to Appendix G of the firefighters’ contract, which Jackson helped draft back in 1980 during the city’s first Chicago Fire Department strike. The contract calls for the hiring of 30 percent African American firemen and 15 percent Hispanics at a time when Blacks are fewer than 500 of the 5,000 Chicago Fire Department firefighters.

Black firemen are asking Mayor Brandon Johnson to honor and adhere to Appendix G and to restore the consent decree canceled by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Both contractual agreements would help equalize the ethnic hiring at the Fire Department. Frank Williams, President of F.J. Williams Realty, said what is happening to Black firemen today “is the same old soup warmed over.”

In the 1980s, Williams was president of the South Side NAACP and worked with Jackson to get more Blacks hired. He and his coalition have renewed a similar fight in 2024, including a similar fight for more Black policemen.

“Nepotism and partiality are still running all the other things. I live in the 19th Ward. I know how many city employees, firemen and police live there. I’ve lived there since 1974, and I’ve watched that (hiring) structure there,” he said.

Jackson has a long history with Black firemen that goes back to 1980, during the city’s first and only Chicago Fire Department strike on February 14, 1980.

With then-Mayor Jane Byrne threatening reprisals against the striking firemen, including threats of throwing Union President Frank Muscare in jail, Jackson asked Byrne if he could intercede. Jackson was instrumental in ending the 23-day fireman’s strike.

At PUSH on Saturday, some thanked him for his negotiation skills, but are now again asking for his help to get more Blacks hired and promoted.

During a panel discussion on Saturday, June 1, at Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters, 930 E. 50th St., Jackson told several dozen Black firemen of his introduction to social justice advocacy.

In 1959, while on break from the University of Illinois, he went home to Greenville, South Carolina. He went to the Black library to do research, but the books he needed were not there. So, he went to the white library downtown and was told Blacks could not use their library. Jackson vowed to return the next summer.

In 1960, Jackson kept his word and organized seven other Black students, Joan Matteson, Dorris Wright, Hattie Smith Wright, Elaine Means, Willie Joe Wright, Benjamin Downs and Margaree Seawright Crosby, now known as the Greenville Eight. The students went back to the white-only library where they were told to leave and they did.

But their mentor, Reverend James S. Hall, Jr., vice president of the South Carolina NAACP, told them to go back, stage a sit-in and expect to be arrested. He promised to bail them out.

Some of the students got books, while others just looked at books on the shelves. They were asked to leave by librarian Charles E. Stow. They refused, and soon the police came. As promised, Reverend Hall bailed them out of jail. Soon afterwards, more white-only Carolina libraries were integrated.

“You have to fight back,” Reverend Jackson told the firemen.

And that is what they are doing, armed with attorney Chiquita Hall-Jackson representing Black firemen, who said, “As the Lewis Class (lawsuit) returns to court in pursuit of justice, it becomes glaringly evident that Appendix G of the Collective Bargaining Agreement is under siege in the current negotiations. To rectify the injustices faced by Black individuals within the Chicago Fire Department and prospective applicants, it is imperative that the right Black voices are included in the negotiation process,” she told the Chicago Crusader.

Chicago Fire Department Lt. Janine Wilburn has been a firefighter for 29 years, having been first promoted to Engineer in 2015 and promoted to her current position in 2018. She said the Department having fewer than 500 Black firemen out of 5,000 means the Department can do more, recruit more, but also conduct fair testing and hiring practices.

Wilburn points the finger at former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who cancelled the consent decree, which Wilburn said will help get more Blacks promoted.

“She took away our power because we could have had more promotions if we had the consent decree. I am not sure she did that.”

When told some say perhaps Blacks don’t test as well as whites, Wilburn said, “I disagree. We study for the test. They study the test. I took the Captain’s written test in 2023. I took the oral portion in August 2023, and today we don’t know when we will get our scores.

“These are the games they play with the tests. When I took the Lieutenant’s exam in 2009, the test scores came back in 2013. They blamed the delay on the outside company that graded the tests. Appendix G is important in acquiring equity in the Fire Department,” she said.

“The only mayor who adhered to Appendix G was Mayor Harold Washington. We have called for a meeting with Mayor Johnson, but we’ve not received a response, even though we have met with some of his people. All we want is to meet with him to hear our pleas, honor Appendix G, and restore the consent decree,” said Wilburn.

Michael Taquee, retired firefighter of the 111 Lewis Class, came on the job in 2012 having taken the firemen’s exam in 1995.

“We won the lawsuit, and they allowed us to come on the job in 2012. Seventeen years later after we took that test, they call themselves righting that wrong, but they righted it half-way, and then they treated us without promotional obligations they should have given us,” Taquee told the Chicago Crusader.

“We are still struggling because we never got everything, we never got everything that was justly due to us. We are still struggling, fighting, hoping they would right the wrong, but for me it’s over. I am 63 years old. I am officially off the job, but my classmates are still fighting, and I’m still fighting with them.”

Fireman Robert Owens, who is also a professional artist and psychotherapist, said the paucity of Black firemen “is a shame because our numbers are dwindling.” Wilburn noted that back in the 1980s there were 800 Black firemen. “We’re going backwards,” she said.

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